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We think of great ideas springing from one person’s brilliant notion while they are sitting under an apple tree or rinsing off in the shower. But the majority of ideas that effectively propel companies forward are shaped in groups through the alchemy of productive disagreement.

That alchemy is not easy to attain. Individually, our egos get in the way as we cling to our own propositions and don’t listen to comments by others. Collectively, the group grappling with a proposal has to overcome the emotions and defensive narrow-mindedness that accompany disagreements about ideas. And, of course, organizationally we have to create a culture where people will be willing to raise their true feelings and embrace opposing thoughts.

Entrepreneur Seth Godin recently mused about the struggle some people experience with ranked ballots in politics because they are so intense in commitment to their favourite candidate they dismiss alternative contenders. “We’ve trained ourselves to be right,” he observed in his blog. He suggested that learning to be more comfortable ranking possibilities and considering acceptable outcomes beyond our preferences, would be hugely beneficial not just in politics but also in the workplace.

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New Statesman columnist Ian Leslie’s deep dive into productive disagreement in his book Conflicted suggests it’s an important skill we must acquire. “I’ve learned that workplace teams function at a higher level when they know how to disagree directly, even passionately, without tearing at the fabric of their relationships. I’ve learned that too much agreement is bad for us, and that we can only make the most of our differences when we disagree well,” he writes.

Arguments may seem like just an exchange of opinions and evidence, but entangled in the dialogue is how we feel about each other. “Underneath every disagreement, a wordless negotiation over a relationship is taking place. If we don’t settle that, the conversation doesn’t stand a chance,” he notes.

Evolution, he feels, has not prepared us for disagreeing productively, and we have not been trained properly either. In fact, most of us are quite hopeless. Indeed, managers are proud when they can stamp out conflict in their departments, assuming any fighting is dysfunctional. High conflict in groups has been shown in research to be bad but so is low conflict; somewhere in the middle, workplaces (and families) can find success through disagreement.

In a sense, our model was Socrates, who liked to talk with people who disagreed with him. He would ask lots of questions, nudging those individuals to a deeper understanding of issues and ideas. He proposed that truth could be reached more reliably and quickly when two or more parties were assigned different sides of an argument. “In a co-operative disagreement, somebody has to be wrong, and Socrates made every effort to let Athenians know that not only is being proved wrong okay, it is something to be grateful for,” Mr. Leslie says.

Red teams are being set up these days within companies to challenge proposed initiatives in an informed, co-operative but intellectually adversarial way. Mr. Leslie notes Warren Buffet suggests that in proposed corporate mergers and acquisitions, boards of directors need to hire, with proper incentives, a second investment-banking firm to advise them against the deal, since the lead advisory firm will gain huge fees if the deal occurs.

Mr. Leslie developed a grammar of disagreement, which begins with the need to connect. Before getting to the content of the disagreement, you must establish a relationship of trust with the other party – be it a colleague or someone facing off against you in a major dispute. Then ease up; to disagree well, you have to stop trying to control what the other person thinks and feels. You also need to make every effort to help the adversary in this disagreement feel good about themselves. Nelson Mandela exemplified that in his handling of the white establishment when he took office as president, often personally serving them tea, a sign of respect and appreciation.

Mr. Leslie warns you “to check your weirdness.” Behind many disagreements lies a clash of culture. It’s typical, but a mistake, to assume yours is the normal one. Get curious about the other person, their ideas and culture. To move past our entrenched beliefs, facts won’t do the trick; we must be curious about other possibilities and hope the other party in our discussions will be curious as well, which gives us the challenge of being interesting enough to spark their wonder. If you just repeat arguments over and over, you won’t be interesting. That also requires introducing novelty and variation – surprise – to the discussion. Break away from the familiar script.

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In discussions, when you’re wrong, admit it and apologize. That humility can strengthen the relationship and help you to move on together. Frame rules for the discussion rather than copying the free expression (and acrimony) of social media discussion. Watch your emotions; they bubble up easily, but you should only get mad on purpose. Finally, his golden rule: be real. Make an honest, human connection.

Mr. Leslie notes that the chemistry of disagreement is inherently unstable. But disagreement, properly handled, can be powerfully productive.

Cannonballs

  • Gallup work-force surveys usually find well-being and engagement moving in tandem, but the pandemic saw them dramatically diverge last year, something executives will have to grapple with. Engagement rose but the percentage of people saying they are thriving plummeted, far more with remote than in-situ workers.
  • Business coach Bonnie Marcus says the “ism” that is easily overlooked is ageism. Are your hiring or firing practices ageist? She urges you to study that carefully, and include ageism and gendered ageism – women can face even greater barriers – in your unconscious-bias training.
  • Jargon can confuse. Research shows it is used more by people whose status in the profession or workplace is lower. Higher-status individuals are more focused on communicating clearly.

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